The Festival of Britain was a celebration that was held on the South Bank of the River Thames in London from May to Sept 1951. The date was special since the Festival celebrated the centenary of the first ever World Exhibition, held in magnificent Crystal Palace back in 1851.
Transport Pavilion, Festival of Britain
Just a few years after WW2 ended, Britain still laboured under a huge war debt and war-time rationing was still in force. This festival was a concerted attempt to lift the spirits of the nation; it was to be "a tonic for the nation".
But more than that. Much of London was still in ruins from the bombs and redevelopment was badly needed. So the Festival was particularly focused on promoting better-quality design in the post-war rebuilding of British cities.
Construction of the South Bank site opened up a new public space, including a riverside walk, which had been previously been filled with warehouses and pretty tatty housing. I don’t suppose all families were delighted to see their housing go, tatty or otherwise. And opposition to the project came from people who believed that the £8 million should have been spent on housing.
The official opening was in May 1951. The principal exhibition site was on the south bank of the Thames near Waterloo Station. Other exhibitions were held in Poplar East London (Architecture), Battersea Park (Festival Gardens), South Kensington (Science) and Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall (Industrial Power) as well as travelling exhibitions. Outside London, major festival activities took place in widely spread cities like Cardiff, Bournemouth, York and Inverness. The Festival ship HMS Campania took a travelling version of the South Bank exhibition to several ports, including Dundee, Newcastle, Plymouth, Bristol, Belfast and Glasgow. Red double decker buses, filled with festival exhibition spaces, toured Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France.
So how utopian was The Festival? The layout of the South Bank site was intended by the organisers to showcase the principles of urban design that might predict the post-war rebuilding of London and the creation of the new towns. These included multiple levels of buildings, elevated walkways and avoidance of a street grid. Most of the South Bank buildings were International Modernist in style, rather unusual in pre-1939 Britain.
Dome of Discovery, Festival of Britain
The Dome of Discovery was then the largest dome in the world. It was constructed from concrete and aluminium in a modernist style and housed many of the festival attractions i.e exhibitions on the theme of discovery — the Living World, Polar, the Sea, the Earth, the Physical World, the Land, Sky and Outer Space.
Skylon, Festival of Britain
The Skylon was an unusual steel tower supported by cables that became the centrepiece and lasting symbol of the Festival of Britain; it stood on London's South Bank between Westminster Bridge and Hungerford Bridge. The 90 ms high Skylon was built of a steel lattice work frame, pointed at both ends and supported on cables slung between 3 steel beams. Even better, the aluminium louvres over the frames were lit up from within at night.
Royal Festival Hall had initially been launched by the Prime Minister Clement Attlee in 1949, on the site of the C19th Lion Brewery building. Built for the London County Council by architect Leslie Martin, Royal Festival Hall visitors were awestruck by the separation of the curved auditorium space from the surrounding building. The building was officially opened in May 1951. The inaugural concerts were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult.
The arts were important, especially sculptures from Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein. And their pieces were spread around, placed on prominent areas around the Southbank. An exhibition of sculptures was specifically organised by the Arts Council in Battersea Park. And there were two exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery as part of the Festival Programme: a display on the History of East London and a separate display of craft and popular art forms.
Note the colossal stone relief by ex-pat Austrian sculptor Siegfried Charoux. This work, The Islanders, was to be read as a symbol of the struggle and resilience of the British people. A temporary work, it was mounted on the side of the Sea and Ships Pavilion and later probably destroyed.
How popular was the Festival? 18 million people visited the 2,000 local events that together made up the Festival of Britain. 55 principal events took place all over the UK, mainly exhibitions and arts festivals. In the five months from May to September, people paid millions of pounds to see the events, making very nice profits for the nation. Profits from the Festival were retained by the London County Council and were used to convert the Royal Festival Hall into a concert hall and to establish The South Bank.
As with many world fairs from 1851 on, The Festival of Britain facilities might well have been pulled down. But when Winston Churchill became prime minister once again in October 1951, he expressed his loathing for the Festival in general and the modernist, so-called socialist architecture in particular. He made it the first act of his newly-elected government in Oct 1951 to clear the South Bank site. Skylon was toppled into the Thames and cut into pieces, on Churchill’s specific orders. The Dome of Discover, which had became such an iconic structure for the public, was demolished and its materials sold as scrap.
So apart from the Royal Festival Hall, the built architecture of the South Bank was destroyed immediately after the events. The cleared site is now the location of the Jubilee Gardens, near the London Eye. Luckily in 1988 Festival Hall was designated a Grade I listed building, the first post-war building to become so protected.
The Festival of Britain created a new audience for architectural modernism. The architects did indeed show, by their design and layout of the South Bank Festival, how modern town planning ideas could be implemented. So it was appropriate that a number of modernist buildings on the main South Bank site became iconic symbols of The Festival. One historian noted that the Festival Style of local modernism did have an impact architecture and interior design in the 1950s, especially in the office blocks and cafes of the New Towns.
Right now (April-Sept 2011) the Southbank Centre London is celebrating the 60th anniversary of The 1951 Festival of Britain. The Royal Festival Hall houses the Museum of 1951, a temporary exhibit featuring memorabilia, artworks, personal histories, models, memories and photographs. Taking pride of place at the festival is John Piper’s mural The Englishman’s Home, a 50’ long celebration of English architecture and one of the only surviving artworks from the 1951 nation-wide festivities.
original designs by Robin and Lucienne Day, displayed in Chichester in 2011
One decorative arts exhibition was held in Pallant House Gallery, Chichester during the first half of 2011. Robin and Lucienne Day: Design and the Modern Interior, consisted of three rooms of Lucienne’s textiles and Robin’s furniture, arranged chronologically and starting with the 1951 Festival of Britain which launched their careers. Believing in the transformative power of modern design to make the world a better place, Robin had designed furniture for the Royal Festival Hall, and had displayed his steel and plywood furniture in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion, along with Lucienne’s textiles.
Being a post-WW2 baby myself, the 1950s was my least favourite design era ever, but I very glad Pallant House Gallery displayed the Days’ important work.